Ever since hand dryers became common in public restrooms, business owners and patrons alike have questioned which is better — hand dryers or paper towels. Hand dryers are more economical and better for the environment. Paper towels cost more but are more sanitary from the consumer perspective.

Hand dryers are available in two varieties: the standard, warm-air hand dryer invented in 1948 by George Clemens, and the jet models popularized by Dyson since 2006. Paper towels are either standard or made from recycled materials. Most studies focus on standard paper towels.

Comparison chart

Hand Dryer versus Paper Towels comparison chart
Edit this comparison chartHand DryerPaper Towels
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Introduction Hand dryers are electric devices in public washrooms used to dry hands. They may either operate with a button or automatically using an infrared sensor. A paper towel is a disposable, absorbent textile made from paper instead of cloth.
Types Standard, Jet Standard, Recycled
Cost Per Use Standard $0.0125; Jet $0.00809 $0.0625 (2 towels standard)
Environmental Impact Per Use Standard 0.02 pounds greenhouse gas; Jet 0.088 pounds greenhouse gas 0.123 pounds greenhouse gas (2 towels standard)
Hygiene Standard increased bacteria by 194% to 254%, jet increased bacteria by 15% to 42% Standard dryer blows micro-organisms up to 1 foot, jet dryer blows micro-organisms up to 6.5 feet away Reduced bacteria by 76% to 77%
Durability 7 to 10 years Single use
Drying Time 30 to 43 seconds for standard dryers, 8 to 10 seconds for jet dryers 5 to 10 seconds
User Preference 28% More popular at 55 to 64%

Environmental Impact

Hand dryers last between seven to 10 years. Both types of hand dryers have less environmental impact than paper towels. Using a standard hand dryer releases 0.02 pounds of greenhouse gas per use. Jet hand dryers, which are energy efficient, release 0.088 pounds per use.

The environmental figures for paper towels rely not just on its use, but on the production, transportation and disposal. Paper towels must be restocked and disposed of more frequently than hand dryers, so their carbon footprint is generally bigger. Using two standard paper towels gives off approximately 0.123 pounds of greenhouse gases, over 5 times that of using a hand dryer. Figures for recycled paper towels are lower but unavailable.

Greenmentor talks about the environment-friendliness of hand dryers vs paper towels:


A biomedical scientist at Queensland University of Technology, Cunri Huang, released aggregate findings related to the method of hand drying and the spread of bacteria. He found that drying hands with paper towels radically reduces the spread of bacteria.

Hand dryers are not considered as hygienic as paper towels, and are known to spread bacteria. Standard dryers can blow micro-organisms up to one foot while jet dryers can blow them up to 6.5 feet. Measuring bacteria prior to washing and after drying, bacteria on the hands increased 194 to 254 percent with standard dryers and 15 to 42 percent with jet dryers. Standard dryers take 30 to 43 seconds to dry the hands, making cross-contamination more likely. Jet dryers take 8 to 10 seconds.

The disposability of paper towels is what makes them so costly, and also what makes them so hygienic. Addition, the physical movement of drying the hands removes bacteria. Finally, hands dry fast, usually within 10 to 15 seconds, which prevents cross-contamination because bacteria spread from wet skin. Therefore, drying hands with paper towels reduced bacteria on the hand prior to washing by 76 to 77 percent.

Both according to Huang's findings and a study conducted at the Rochester Institute of Technology, users prefer paper towels to hand dryers. 55 to 64 percent of bathroom patrons preferred paper towels while only 28 percent preferred hand dryers.

A 2012 review by Mayo Clinic of scientific studies comparing the effectiveness of paper towels and hand dryers found that
Most studies suggest that paper towels can dry hands efficiently, remove bacteria effectively, and cause less contamination of the washroom environment. From a hygiene viewpoint, paper towels are superior to electric air dryers. Paper towels should be recommended in locations where hygiene is paramount, such as hospitals and clinics.


After the initial investment of buying and installing a hand dryer, their running cost is significantly cheaper. The cost of standard hand dryers according to EPA is $0.0125 per use and jet dryers at $0.00809 per use, both of which include the initial buying cost.

Paper towels require not only the towels, but a place for disposal that includes other overheads such as bin liners, labor etc. Paper towels also incur costs for clean-up and disposal. Researchers calculate the cost of standard papers towels at $0.0625 to use two paper towels.

There is no figure for the cost of recycled paper towels, though the EPA states production costs are decreased by 40 percent, a significant difference in cost.

Even though paper towels will still cost more, consumers can make a significant impact on the cost and environment by minimizing the use of paper towels. Listen to this interesting TED Talk by Joe Smith on how to use just one paper towel:


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